Poetry in a Cold Climate: Ron Smith found his muse in Antarctica's vast icy wilderness

Air Force Colonel Ron Smith keeps his cold-weather gear in the bedroom closet of his sparely furnished apartment in the Central West End. "I call it my Antarctica closet," he says, dragging out a nylon bag. "In this bag, you have everything you need to survive in the cold."

Smith pulls out a thin parka. Aside from the faux fur that lines the hood, the coat is not much different from those worn a century ago by the first Antarctic explorers. He finds the pair of reflective goggles he used to protect his eyes from snow glare and a pair of thermal mittens.

"Gloves won't last you 25 minutes at the South Pole," he explains. "The only things that work are double-layered mittens. They don't separate your fingers."

Ron Smith.
Ron Smith.
An aerial view of Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
National Science Foundation
An aerial view of Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

He digs out a pair of ungainly black boots with a special felt lining to prevent the thick rubber soles from conducting cold from the ground, and snow pants with a bib to protect his entire body from the wind.

"The wind is your biggest enemy in a cold environment," he says. "The first thing you do in a survival situation is to build a wall of snow to protect yourself from the wind." At arctic survival school he learned how to build an igloo. "It keeps you active all day so you stay warm, and then you have something to sleep in."

A properly constructed igloo and an arctic sleeping bag, like the one jammed into the bottom of Smith's pack, are enough to keep a person warm enough to sleep through the night, even at subzero temperatures. Smith knows this from experience: Because of the extreme cold, airplane breakdowns in Antarctica are not uncommon, and he has spent several nights stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Smith is 54 years old. Tall and thin with close-cropped hair, he served twelve years with the Air Force's Operation Deep Freeze, eventually rising to commander in 2004. In December of 2008 he was transferred to Scott Air Force Base, where he currently serves as the Air National Guard adviser for strategic planning.

Now, even after a year in St. Louis, Antarctica is never far from Smith's thoughts. The background picture on his computer monitor shows the snowy landscape outside his dorm room window at McMurdo Station, headquarters of Operation Deep Freeze, the code name for U.S. operations in the world's fifth-largest continent.

Beside his survival kit sits the most important souvenir of his dozen seasons on the Ice, as its human inhabitants call it, a hefty leather briefcase filled with the journals that contain the raw material for his latest project.

Smith has written more than 1,000 poems. Most of them are about Antarctica's frigid landscape — just over 99 percent of its treeless surface is covered with ice — or as he writes, "this cold soaked/cradle of blue floes/and flotsam." Last year he collaborated with a Portland, Oregon, sculptor named K.A. Colorado on a series of sculptures that feature Smith's words engraved and embedded in resin and glass masquerading as chunks of ice.

A show of their work, called Polar Dialogue 2009, opened at the LA Artcore gallery last fall and in April will move north to Vancouver, British Columbia. After that, Smith and Colorado hope to bring the sculpture to St. Louis. Their purpose is twofold: They want St. Louisans to appreciate their art, but they also want them to understand the fragility of the polar environment.

Blue bowl to the brim, the ocean will cleave
its ice, its habitat, the wingless a-flight;
losses our children may never relieve

"We're going to have a sculpture out of real ice and engrave a poem on it," says Smith. "As it melts, I'll read poetry. It's a metaphor for the melting Arctic Ocean and global warming. We want to make people aware artistically of the spirituality and pristine environment in the polar region. It's beautiful and fragile, and the 99.9 percent of the population who will never go there will never know what they lost."

More people have scaled Mount Everest than have been to the South Pole, and for those who have crossed Antarctica's vast wilderness — as big as the United States and Mexico combined — the experience is indescribable.

"When you see Antarctica for the first time," Smith says dreamily, "it's an intense event in your life. Unless you've been up in the Arctic, there's no sight that can compare to it. You fly down from New Zealand into the Ross Sea as it narrows to McMurdo Sound. There's a whole white continent in front of you. It's shimmering white. It's unreal. It's surreal, like the moon. The Transantarctic Mountains cut the continent in half. You can see the beginning, but not the end."

Great White Antarctica—
Vapid carnivore arose
and railed ivory reef of hoar;
trapezoids tossed through a
blue tableaux, scavenged by
seekers of whale and secrets

It's been nearly a century since the so-called "heroic" age of Antarctic exploration, back when Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton raced across the ice to map the desolate windswept continent, study its rocks and animals — and find the South Pole.

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